Balasaheb Keshav Thackeray, Mumbai’s Uncrowned King, Maharashtra’s First Citizen, Heart-Throb of the Marathi Manoos, and Hindu Hriday Samrat was a man of many parts. But he was not an easy one to categorise.
His rivals called him a fascist, a fundamentalist. He would have had no problems with this name-calling, for he too called people names.
Whatever he was, he was no fake. He was an original. A straight-talker. He did not believe in political correctness. He spoke what he believed. He was loved as much as he was hated. And he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Perhaps his straight-forwardness came from his core persona as a cartoonist – someone who did not have to mince words to say what he wanted to – even if it was an overstatement.
What were his beliefs?
He made no bones about the fact that he did not believe in free-wheeling democracy. He believed Indians needed to be ruled with a firm hand. Without a firm hand, they would remain indisciplined and accomplish little.
Once he started his party, everyone knew he was boss for life. When his party came to power along with the BJP, he made it clear that the Chief Minister would dance to his tune. He held the remote-control.
When the Election Commission ordered political parties to hold internal elections, he carried out a farce and his son was elected Working President. But nobody had any doubt who held the reins of power.
He was a study in contrasts. He was modern, with no false love of ritual or tradition. But he appealed to identity, to tradition, to people who sought certainty in fast-changing world.
What was the secret of his rise to power?
He began his political career by taking up the cause of the sons of the soil – the Marathi Manoos. He targeted south Indians and Gujaratis in the belief that they were taking jobs away from the locals.
But this phase did not last too long. He was too much of a Mumbaikar to believe that outsiders were just a bane. He turned inclusive in stages, and by the late 1980s, he had broadened his appeal to Hindus in general.
The Ayodhya movement was building up at that time, but while the BJP was the immediate political beneficiary of the movement, it was Balasaheb who really articulated the underlying militancy of Hindutva. When the Babri Masjid was brought down, one rumour was that some extreme elements in the Shiv Sena may have worked for this. Thackeray said if this was the case, he would be proud of it.
In Maharashtra, he embodied the Hindutva movement even as the BJP was pussyfooting around the idea once it came to power at the centre.
In the early 1990s, it was he who was the roaring tiger of Hindutva, not the BJP. His role in the 1992 riots have been well-documented by the Srikrishna Commission, but Thackeray was never apologetic about it, and no government in Maharashtra found the gumption to take him on. Reason: they believed he was too much of a community icon to alienate. Even the police machinery secretly sympathised with him.
But after 2002, when Narendra Modi emerged as the new mascot of Hindutva, Thackeray did not take kindly to this new threat to his Hindu Hriday Samrat status. He was always wary of Modi’s growing fame and achievements.
But unlike Modi, who always articulated his Hindutva leanings in coded terms, Thackeray did not mince words – whether it was opposition to Pakistanis or Ayodhya or terrorism.
Today, Modi is the pet hate of the minorities and secularists, but Thackeray, despite his more strident position on Hindutva, never attracted the kind of bile that Modi did.
Is that because he was always a non-hypocrite? Was it because he touched Maharashtrian hearts more directly than anyone else? Or was it because people saw his words as being bolder than his actions?
It could not be the latter, for the key to Shiv Sena’s power has always been its control of the streets, its ability to enforce a shutdown of Mumbai whenever Balasaheb gave the nod.
Clearly, there was more to his power than just the control of Mumbai’s streets.
His rise to power was initially seen as being promoted by Mumbai’s industrialists, who wanted to see a reduction in Communist union power in the mills and factories of the city.
However, he was nobody’s lackey. He was his own man. He was part of the BJP-led NDA, but he did his own thing - whether it was breaking from the NDA on the presidential elections or FDI in retail. He did not believe in phony politics where beliefs are malleable and dependent on short-term political calculations.
As he leaves this world, it is clear that there is no one to fill his shoes. Formally, he has asked Shiv Sainiks to support his son Uddhav, but his nephew Raj Thackeray, who left the party some years ago to float the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, is more likely to succeed in this endeavour for he is more like Balasaheb than Uddhav – abrasive, direct, politically incorrect, brash and unrepentant about his ideology.
Uddhav, in contrast, has more finesse, and has a technocratic mindset. He believes in extending the party’s base and making it a more modern entity, driven by new issues beyond identity.
In a fundamental sense, the Sena would benefit if both the Thackeray inheritors pulled together by marrying passion with inclusiveness. The Sena needs both Raj and Uddhav to build on what Thackeray created. The Marathi Manoos would certainly want both to work together.
But in politics, power is always indivisible. Only one of Balasaheb’s inheritors will ultimately triumph and lead the movement that Thackeray founded.
Balasaheb, who himself did not believe in the divisibility of power, would perhaps approve of whoever wins the contest.